Suslovic: Talks with Russian sister-city emotional, awkward, worthwhile
PORTLAND — Siblings can agree to disagree, City Councilor Ed Suslovic believes. Even if they don't speak the same language.
Officials from Portland's sister city, Archangel, Russia, met Nov. 21 for a frank discussion with Suslovic, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck and several other community leaders.
Reporters were initially invited to sit in on the meeting. But at the last minute, the Russian delegation refused to let the reporters attend.
Suslovic later said the talks represented a "deepening and maturing of the relationship" between the two cities. He said the topics ranged from Portland's ban on median-strip loitering to Russian laws and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The delegation was in Maine for a celebration last week of the 25th anniversary of the sister-city program. As part of the anniversary, Suslovic, who has helped guide the program since 2007, organized the discussion.
A growing number of cities are severing relationships with their "sisters" in Russia, as the country comes under international criticism for recent laws prohibiting "homosexual propaganda," which includes many forms of public speech and association. Emboldened by the crackdown, Russian vigilante groups have kidnapped, beaten and tortured gay men, especially teenagers.
Archangel, a port city of 350,000 people about 600 miles north of Moscow, has had a local anti-LGBT law on its books for several years.
Last week, Suslovic said the discussion with the Russian officials was similar to public discussions that have taken place in Maine.
"To me, some of today's (civil rights discussion) was a like flashback of what we went through in Maine," he said.
He said the talks were emotional and awkward, but also worthwhile.
"If we can't have difficult conversations, we're just acquaintances and not friends," he said. "And this process happens one conversation at a time."